THE SEARCH FOR OSWESTRY TOWN WALL
by DERRICK PRATT
II. DESTRUCTION & DISAPPEARANCE OF THE BOROUGH'S DEFENCES
While it possibly took some twenty-five years to build Oswestry's town wall, assuming it was completed by 1304, the destruction of the borough's outer defences took considerably longer. The blame for their disappearance must not be laid entirely at the door of the Parliamentarians under Basil Fielding, earl of Denbigh, and Col, Thomas Mytton, of Halston, in 1644. The obliteration of the inner defences, those of the bailey and castle, was more rapid, possibly being achieved by the mid-fifteenth century.
Several inter-related factors contributed to the slow, but steady process of destruction:
- The long period of relative peace, post 1407, which made the town wall more or less redundant.
- The consequent neglect of their obligations to maintain the wall by the burgesses of Oswestry, notably in the appropriation to other, more profitable uses, of monies ostensibly earmarked and collected for its repair.
- Such a situation was aggravated by the decline in the lord's interest and authority in the internal affairs of the borough.
- The economic developments that made for the continued prosperity of the town not only stimulated in-filling within the walls, trespassing upon the bailey and its ditches, but also encouraged the expansion of the borough beyond the artificial restraining line of the wall.
- The piecemeal reduction and robbing of the wall to supply stone for building purposes, especially for fire-places, ovens, kilns etc. in the wake of the great fires of 1542, 1544 and 1567.
- The insertion of many private gateways and entrances along the line of the wall to give easier access to the town fields and property without the wall.
- The considerable damage inflicted during the Civil War, especially during the 'Battle of Oswestry' on 22 June 1644, followed by the slighting of the castle sometime after 1647 and the disappearance of the greater part of the wall between 1656 and 1660.
- Not in the least the vagaries of the weather upon an increasingly weakened and vulnerable wall.
In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries the control of the earl of Arundel over his borough of Oswestry was still fairly tight, more so because, apart from a short period of royal custody or forfeiture, it had been in the hands of the powerful FitzAlan family for over two centuries (and was to remain in their possession until 1595). At no period did the several ecclesiastical estates within the borough develop into franchises strong enough to challenge seigneurial authority ( *32 ). The newly erected wall was consequently maintained in a good state of repair.
The weakening of the lord's authority was perhaps inevitable. No longer a single entity, focus of undivided interest, from 1334 onwards the lordship of Oswestry became a subsidiary unit in the rapidly expanding Arundel inheritance in the northern March, as first the lordship of Chirk, and then, in 1347, the lordship of Bromfield and Yale were added to the already extensive FitzAlan estates in Shropshire and the March ( *33 ). The lord became an increasingly remote figure in the life of Oswestry as the boroughs of Chirk and Holt were actively, and preferentially, developed. Under Richard FitzAlan II particularly, Shrawardine Castle (Castle Philippa) became the main FitzAlan residence, Holt Castle the principal chancery, and Wrexham the busiest and wealthiest market town in Worth Wales and the border. Almost imperceptibly his rule in Oswestry became less.restrictive, although, in the early stages, not too indulgent.
As the administration of the borough passed progressively into the hands of the burgesses, so the onslaught on the town wall and ditch gained momentum. Recognisable signs of self-government and nacent urban institutions are discernible in the charters of 1399 and 1407. Although many of the liberties contained therein are only immunities, exceptions, and limitations, including much valued non-intromittant clauses, the existence of a gild merchant and borough court served as the foundation upon which the fabric of greater urban privileges was to be built ( *34 ). By 1582 the election of a common council and the existence of a Book of Constitutions , drawn up for the improved government of the town, would appear to indicate that the emaciated vestiges of seigniorial authority were then much atrophied ( *35 ). The royal charters of 1616 and 1673, incorporating vital liberties and strong urban powers, formally mark the complete achievement of full corporate status by the borough ( *36 ). Significantly, references to the wall and ditch fade from the records, only the crumbling gateways surviving for another century as a danger to pedestrians and a hazard to commercial traffic.
The street pattern in the centre of present-day Oswestry is basically that of the medieval borough, a crude horse-shoe shape imposed as the four main links with the outlying districts - Wyllya Strete , Midel Strete , Lege Strete and Bader Strete - skirted the castle mound and bailey area to converge in the forum mercatorium at the Cross, just below le blake ditch .
In 1276, before the wall was built, there were some forty-six burgage holdings in the borough. By 1301, in the rather fragile peace following the Welsh uprisings of 1282-4 and 1294-5, their number had increased to 127 and, in spite of the endemic plagues of the late fourteenth century, to 163 by 1393 ( *37 ). The subdivision of burgage plots and the proliferation of smaller, irregular holdings - the shopae , placeae , tenementa and croftae of the surveys - points to the attraction of urban life in Oswestry. This was particularly noticeable in Beatrice Street, Leg Street and on the castle bailey, which areas early established themselves as zones favoured by small tradesmen and craftsmen, a social and occupational distinction even more sharply drawn in the surveys and tax assessments of two centuries later ( *38 ).
With increasing pressure thus put on land within the perimeter wall, it is not surprising to discover that by 1393 substantial inroads had been made upon the original castle and bailey defences, and that not inconsiderable extra-mural extensions or suburbs were developing outside at least three of the four gates to the town ( *39 ).
North of Oswestry an ancient trackway crossed Gwern y Bwrdeisiaid or Burgesses' Moor, before forking to run to Whittington and Ellesmere, and via the Traean, that detached portion of Oswestry lordship, to Chirk and Wrexham. It was an important artery of commerce. Not surprisingly, by 1393, considerable ribbon development had taken place along it. Immediately outside the Beatrice Gate there were seventeen burgages, eleven crofts and a barn on the one side, and 10¾ burgages and croft on the other. This was always to be the largest suburb, with in Leland's time "many barnes for corne and hay to the number of vii score several barnes" ( *40 ). Such extra-mural developments did not here trespass upon the town ditch, which still carried the surface water from Cripple Gate and Castle Fields, but obviously the wall was to prove an irritant and a barrier to communication.
By contrast there was little suburban development outside the Black Gate, due possibly to the proximity of part of the lord's demesne known as Park Issa or Lower Park, which had yet to be enclosed and subdivided. Even as late as 1795 there were less than a dozen cottages along the south side of the Shrewsbury road between English Walls and Croft Lane ( *41 ). Encroachments noted in the records as being made upon le Blakediche or Black Ditch refer to the remnants of the bailey's southern defences, bounded in part by Leg Street and Willow Street and the approximate course of which is still indicated by the narrow alley known as Clawdd Ddu.
Clearly the moat near the Cross was now dry and silted up, with its feeder stream, Leland's 'Cross Brook', being permanently confined to its ditch or crudely culverted. Amongst the 'new rents' in the borough receiver's account for 1362-3 ( *42 ) is included 10s. 8d. from the erection of market stalls in the Black Ditch, and in 1393 four burgages, one placea , and four perticae (perches) of land had been carved out of this particular section of the inner moat. Such encroachments were invariably long, narrow strips, thirty feet wide and 22 - 33 yards in length. In 1398 one of these encroachments was held by Jankyn ap Gwyllym of Chirk, described as "one of the merchants of the principality of Chester", but possibly also deputy-constable of Chirk Castle ( *43 ). This may pinpoint a further factor behind infilling and the expansion of the borough - the admittance, as burgesses, of 'foreigners', especially Shrewsbury merchants and drapers.
The burgage plots that fronted the east side of Willow Street extended back towards the castle and onto the bailey. By 1393 they had obviously over-run the bailey's western defences except for the occasional section of moat that rejoiced in such names as le foul-slogh ('foul mire!), collecting not only storm water but also sewage from nearby houses. In that same year at least three crofts and gardens were extended even further back into the castle moat, such aggrandizements being made by the sons of the current holders of the burgages on Willow Street. Several small lanes, about forty yards long separated blocks of properties and linked Willow Street with the bailey. Only one has survived, the present Arthur Street or Shut. The remainder had been enclosed and taken into adjacent holdings by 1602 ( *44 ).
Outside the Willow Gate only a small outgrowth had accrued by 1393. This is perhaps not surprising along a road that rose sharply into the Welsh hills. Here Thomas de Haston, who already held within the walls four burgages, a croft and twenty-four acres, and the lord's pinfold, had ventured to take over the site of the lord's old tan yard, a croft, and 'a certain ditch outside the gate', which can only refer to the ditch or moat below the town wall. If for no other reason than it was at a slightly higher elevation, that part of the town moat from the Willow Gate to the castle was dry, unless it too was utilised to carry excess water from Castle Fields, and therefore more readily liable to encroachment.
By 1577 this suburb had expanded greatly and comprised some six houses, forty-two tenements, a cottage and sundry barns and stables, set amongst orchards, gardens, crofts and inclosures ( *45 ).
In Middle Street ( *46 ) and Church Street, described as a 'royal way' in the fourteenth century, resided Oswestry's wealthier burgesses. Their multiple burgage holdings and more substantial houses afforded an almost rural aspect to the southern approaches to the town, contrasting markedly with the narrow winding streets and shuts of the town's commercial core in Leg Street and on the bailey. Between New Gate and St. Oswald's Church, in 1393, some twenty-four burgages fronted Church Street or encroached upon the town-field of Oceldemere ( Sheldemer ) to form the suburb of Chirton ( *47 ).
But it was in, and upon, the bailey that the greatest transformation was taking place. Leland could speak of Bayly Streate as the street of the forum maximum et mercatores , the hub of the market and the venue of merchants. It was inevitable that in the years before the wall was built, the bailey, originally a necessary adjunct to the castle, should also have accommodated and sheltered part of the infant urban community that nestled in the shadow of the castle. That in 1276 a distinction could still be drawn between infra ballium and extra ballium , suggests that at this time the original line of the bailey's defences, moat and embankment or palisade, could still be traced, although rapidly disappearing. In that year fourteen burgesses held some 22½ burgage plots within the bailey ( *49 ).
A contemporary account (1327-30) records payment's made for the erecting of market stalls in the bailey ( *50 ). By 1393 Willow Street burgages had encroached along the western perimeter of the bailey and the number of burgage holdings in the bailey itself had increased to 34¼, held by glovers, mercers, smiths, farriers, tax-collectors, clerks, wheelwrights, cordmakers, and 'rackers' or tenters. They were interspersed with shop-houses (one converted from a gaol), tenements, curtilages, crofts and the usual miscellaneous placeae or plots. The evidence suggests that the general line of what was later Bailey Street was slowly being established and that infilling was proceeding apace, with disastrous consequences for its former defences. At the head of the bailey a Hall of Pleas or court-house had been erected, replacing an older building, converted into workshops, that stood in Leg Street. The castle ditch behind it, and in six other places, had been leased for gardens and building purposes. A long strip of land, hard against the castle moat, was reserved for tenter frames ( *51 ).
Thus by the end of the fourteenth century a picture begins to emerge of a thriving town literally bursting at the seams, outgrowing its defensive wall, but more particularly of an ancient bailey closely packed with buildings of every size, shape and function. But it would be over optimistic to assume that the simple process of archaeological excavation would allow the recovery of constructional details, the lay out of the medieval streets and alleys, or the exact line of the outer defences of both castle and bailey. Rather the converse would appear to hold true, for the archaeological potential of the medieval core region of Oswestry, bounded by the present Willow, Cross and Leg Streets, must generally be rated very low.
Before the B.C.A.G. embarked on its search for Oswestry town wall, there had been no properly conducted archaeological excavation in the town. As will be seen below, the several reports of sightings of portions of the town wall are vague, inexact, and all too often at second-hand. They add little to the scanty details of stratigraphy gained from one of the three trenches cut in Welsh Walls, outside the core area, in March 1980. Here the late medieval layers were reached some 50 cms. below the present surface level.
Medieval buildings varied in construction - some post-hole built, some framed, some with cob or clay walls, some with posts that stood on, rather than in, the ground - and at the best of times do not lend themselves to preservation. This is particularly so if it can be demonstrated that virtually the whole of Oswestry's medieval core, and a large part of the suburbs, have been subject to several well-defined phases of redevelopment, some of them involuntary and unplanned. In combination such redevelopment is almost bound to have, had an adverse affect on the medieval stratigraphy and later occupational layers, apart perhaps from more substantial or deep seated features such as cess pits, larger post-holes, rubbish pits and cisterns.
With normal wear and tear medieval buildings were regularly replaced or modified - an average cycle or phase of some fifty years has been suggested - during which time the whole layout of the core area would undergo a complete, but natural, organic change. However, in practice, unforeseen factors frequently triggered off or stimulated more sudden and drastic change.
Reference has already been made to the destruction suffered by the inhabitants of Oswestry in 1215, 1230, and 1282, but even more pertinent to the present purpose of attempting to recover the line of the borough's ancient defences, are the visitation of Owain Glyn Dwr's disorganised rabble on Wednesday, 22 September 1400, and the great fires that swept the town in 1542, 1544 and 1567.
The true extent of the damage inflicted on the borough in those heady, early days of Glyn Dwr's rebellion, is not known, but the uprising was remembered with feeling for many years afterwards, indeed, as late as 1635! It was certainly used by the burgesses to give weight to protestations of poverty, and as an interminable excuse for the non-payment of rents, services and other dues. Such phrases as Oswestria pene tota conflagrata fuit occacione belli populi Wallensis pepper the court rolls of the borough throughout the reign of Henry IV ( *52 ).
John Davies, writing in 1635 "from my poore house at Midlton, neare Oswestrie", was a compiler of a manuscript history of the borough and lordship of Oswestry for the earl of Arundel, and gives the original account of the great fires ( *53 ):
Fire was a constant hazard in any medieval town. Inadequately protected hearths, bake-ovens, brew-houses and fuel stacks, in close juxtaposition to combustible dwellings clustered closely together, made the occurrence and rapid spread of fires almost inevitable. The "twoe longe streetes" ravaged by fire in 1542 can only refer to Willow Street and the Leg Street/Beatrice Street axis. Devastation of the core area in 1567 must have been complete. After a prolonged dry spell, and fanned by a strong breeze, the fire burnt with an unusual intensity until there was nothing left for the flames to consume.
The financial loss and dislocation of commerce caused by these fires is not the prime concern of the archaeologist, but in a trading town such as Oswestry the loss of stock and tools was a crucial matter for the residents of the borough. It was only slight compensation that dwellings and business premises could be quickly rebuilt from local materials. Reconstruction went on apace, but not always along pre-existing lines. The opportunity was taken to sort out, and bring some order to, the haphazard jumble of buildings that once graced the bailey area. The regular lines of the late medieval burgage plots became blurred, or disappeared altogether, as fire damaged buildings were summarily levelled and cleared, to vanish, in the new order of things, under gardens, back-yards or back-side lanes, where they may yet await recovery. Such, possibly, was the fate of the medieval building, the corner of which was exposed by B.C.A.G. excavators in Welsh Walls. Indeed, the ash and burnt debris that filled a stone-lined pit associated with a later phase of construction, may have derived from one of these sixteenth century conflagrations.
Undoubtedly the subsequent erection in Willow Street and Leg Street of more substantial Tudor dwellings, shop-houses and workshops, especially if they were cellared, drastically reduced the chances of present-day archaeologists recovering profiles, cross-sections and other traces of the bailey's defences which otherwise would have survived, sealed by destruction and later occupation layers, even after infilling and levelling. Similarly, the iconoclastic impact of later, mainly nineteenth century, development in these two streets and the core area generally, will have had a further detrimental effect on archaeological stratigraphy, if not obliterating completely the medieval horizons.
Not surprisingly, therefore, with the above mentioned exception, no medieval building has survived in Oswestry. (This is not to say that, with a more detailed survey of existing buildings, one may not come to light). Regretfully, the remorseless machinery of urban renewal has spared all too few Tudor buildings, for example, 'The Bell', 'The Fox' and No. 29 Bailey Street. These number amongst the earliest buildings in Oswestry and are all sixteenth century interiors with nineteenth century or later frontages. The effect of the fire on the town wall is more difficult to assess. Timber work - gates, steps, rails, ladders, shoring would have been badly damaged. The demand for stone with which to construct more substantial hearths, chimneys, ovens and kilns, along with other fire precautions, would have triggered off a renewed onslaught upon the crumbling wall as a convenient, ready-made quarry of stone.
In March 1602, Thomas Howard, baron de Walden and earl of Suffolk, lord of Oswestry, commissioned John Norden, senior, to compile a detailed survey of Oswestry borough and lordship as the first step towards resolving "divers doubts and ambiguities" concerning the ancient liberties and franchises then enjoyed by the burgesses of the town. While Norden was concerned primarily with tenurial obligations and clarifying the rights of the lord of the manor, he included in his report, almost as a stricture, valuable comments on the state of Oswestry Castle and the town wall some fifty years after the great fires ( *54 ).
The castle was ruinous, being busily plundered for building materials by the local gentry, possibly with the active connivance of the lord's officials in the borough. Even allowing for some exaggeration on the part of the surveyor, Norden's criticism is such that one is constantly surprised at the military role that the town and castle was expected to play in the Civil War forty years later. The town of Oswestry was held for the king for two years prior to 1644, when it was taken by the Parliamentarians, but the subsequent slighting of the castle and destruction of the town wall was but the final stage in a process of gradual attrition initiated and connived at, over a long period of time, by the inhabitants of the town.
Norden was at pains to emphasise that the town ditch should revert into the lord's hands in case it needed to be 're-edified', that is, cleaned, deepened, and otherwise brought up to standard as a defensive obstacle. The surveyor was alarmed at the number of illegal encroachments made in both the castle and town ditches, mainly by burgesses such as Richard Blodwell and Richard Jone, 'who had nothing to show' in the way of leases or copy of court roll and paid no rent for the same. Between Beatrice Gate and the castle part of the town ditch now contained 'the Buttes' or archery targets.
Fifteen burgesses, drawn from amongst the local gentry and trades-people, were empanelled as a jury of inquisition to supply Norden with all necessary information and the answers to twenty-six articles of enquiry. They were reticent or downright evasive in many of their answers and a punctilious surveyor adds his own comments. On the town wall we read:
Norden makes it quite clear that a third part of the market tolls and all the profit from stallage or standings and the 'tenseries' ( *55 ) at fairs, as collected by the murager and bailiffs, should have been set aside for the upkeep of the gates and wall, but as he bleakly notes: "... it apeareth by the folorne gates and the ruayned walls that they have bestoed little cost theis manie yeares but have converted the receytes of this third part of the tolle to other private uses ...." His further memoranda on the state of the wall and gates are even more revealing:
TOWNE GATES. The gates of the towne, 4 in number, are all verye ruinous and decayed all but the Churche gate where the Burgesses have made their election house. The rest the Burgesses should have repayred, but they suffer them to fall, and yet are allowed about £20 per annum towards it, which for as much they doe not repayre the gates and walles but are themselves the cause of the ruyne. It were not amisse they were deprived of the allowance, and that your Lordship would repaire the gates which would make verye habitable houses and yeeld a good yearley benefitt unto your Lordship".
The lord of the manor had long ceased to reside at Oswestry Castle. Indeed, the jury of inquisition could not recall its being garrisoned within living memory, although Norden did append a note to the effect that: "It apeareth by some recordes that the Lordes of the Manor of Oswestry did keepe a garison of men in the castle in the time of Welsh tumults which were in time past verie comon". The decaying pile was beyond both the proper custody of prisoners and the efforts of the solitary porter or door-keeper to prevent the piecemeal dismantling of the castle. As Norden notes:
(Surveyor's Note). It is a pittiful thing to see soe prety a pile soe defaced, and nott fitt that the offenders should goe unpunished for they have taken down whole towres and taken and carried awaye the stone, tymber, yron and lead, throwne downe the forewalls, uncovered the mayne towres, taken of the lead, carried away some of the tymber, and the rest being uncovered rots"
Not surprisingly, when tested by Parliamentary forces in the defences of Oswestry were found sadly lacking, and town and castle capitulated after only a token resistance. The previous year Lord Arthur Capell, the Royalist commander in the area, had passed through Oswestry and had ordered the townspeople to extend and strengthen their defences ( *56 ), an almost impossible task in view of the dilapidated state into which the wall and gates had been permitted to fall. There is no indication that outlying trenches and earthworks were constructed as, for example, at Chester and Nantwich.
The Oswestry garrison at the time of its surrender comprised 'twenty gentlemen of Shropshire and Wales' and some 200 officers and men, most of them ill-trained volunteers or conscripts from Wales. By noon on Saturday, 22 June 1644, Parliamentary forces under the earl of Denbigh had captured St. Oswald's Church, a useful observation post and, with its massive tower, an outlying defensive bastion to the town. In the afternoon a short, but effective carronade cleared the defenders from the Church or New Gate, forcing them to take shelter in the castle. The town was entered and before night-fall the outer gate of the castle had been blown up-by a buttar, a primitive form of limpet mine. The following morning, before the castle entrance could be fired with pitch, the garrison capitulated, their lives being spared.( *57 ).
Town wall and castle took a further battering when, on Saturday, 29 June, the Royalists under Col. Marrow, mounted a counter-attack. Heavy house-to-house street fighting raged for three days, the Royalists breaching the wall in several places, recapturing the church, but failing to take the castle. They were forced to withdraw to meet a relieving Parliamentary force marching from Knutsford under Sir Thomas Myddleton. Marrow was defeated on (?West) Felton Heath on Tuesday, 2 August, the remnants of his force fleeing in disarray to Shrewsbury. Oswestry was to remain in Parliamentary hands, and sometime between 1647 and 1651 the castle was slighted to render it even more unserviceable. A Parliamentary Survey compiled in March 1652 refers to:
The same survey also mentions the town wall:
The greater part of the wall was demolished before 1660, but the gates did not suffer the same fate. Presumably from the point of view of internal security there was far more to be gained by leaving them standing.
After the Restoration in 1660 the Crown made no effort to restore Oswestry Castle. As William Cathrall, the historian, lamented: "... but the Castle, so dilapidated and broken down, was permitted to lie in ruins ... and by degrees its shattered walls and fallen columns were carried away by nocturnal depredators until at length the vestiges of a fortress consisted of little more than the mound still left in our sight" ( *60 ), In seeking a new charter (granted in 1673), the bailiffs and burgesses of Oswestry petitioned Charles II and stated they were "att theye time of ye late intestine warrs very greate sufferers for that having made ye towne a Garrison for your Majesty's father it was taken by storme & ye suburbes all burnt and ye walls, castle and church demolished by ye late usurping powers..." ( *61 ).
These are the last references to the town wall as a complete entity. As already intimated, it must be assumed that the greater part of it was demolished shortly after 1652, and certainly before 1660. However, small sections either side of the gate-houses were left standing, not only to maintain the structural stability of already tottering edifices, but also more effectively to channel traders and traffic through the gateways to facilitate the collection of tolls. But it is clear that the earls of Powys, as lords of the manor, did little to maintain even these truncated remnants of the wall. The surviving records of the borough court leet and view of frankpledge are liberally sprinkled with presentments and fines for not repairing the gates and side-walling. The following extracts may shed light on their rapidly deteriorating condition, and go far to explain the final demolition of the gates in 1772 and 1782.
(We present) "Also his Grace the Duke of Powys for not repaireing the Bettrice Gate, the same being dangerous by reason of takeing soe many stones of and leaving loose ones unsecured. Fine 10s. time till May being given."
"And wee doe alsoe present his Grace the lUke of Powys for not repaireing the Willow gate house which (is) ready to fall and very dangerous to passengers..Fine 20s. time given to repaire and secure, 6 weeks" ( *62 )"
13 October 1737
"Wee present Jonas Turner for not cleansing within the Bettridge Gate and for not repayreing the Wall soe far as concerns him. 6d., time 14 days."
"We also present Jonas Turner, Richard Owen, butcher, for not cleaneing within the Black Gate which more than ordinary dirty and wants repairation withall and what hee is obleiged to doe or cause to be done. 6d., and 14 days."
"We present the Lord Duke of Powys for demolishing the stones at the Bettridge Gate and for not secureing the loose stones there which .are dangerous to passengers &c, 40s., time 6 months."
"Wee doe alsoe present the Lord Duke of Powys for not repaireing the Willow Gate house and secureing it as it is very dangerous for all comers and goers through that Gate and ready to drop and the same ought to be repayred by him or his agents. 40s., time 6 months " ( *63 ).
11 October 1738
"Wee alsoe present his Grace the Duke of Powys for not repayreing the Willow Gate house which is very dangerous to passengers goeing to and againe through the sayd gate and therefore a publique nuisance to all persons as well as the inhabitants of the neighbourhood".
"We further present his Grace the Duke of Powys for not secureing the loose stones of the Bettridge Gate and the Town Wall there which was demolished there and applyed otherwise for my said Lord Dukes use and his benefitt, the sayd stones being dangerous to passengers and therefore necessary to be secured for the safety of all people who have buysnes that way. 10s., time for a moneth to repair" ( *64 ).
Because there was nothing left of the castle, the New Gate had for some time served as the common gaol of the borough. Its dilapidated state gave rise for concern, and in 1739 a- sub-committee was asked to 'view' the gaol and gate and to report back to the magistrates in Quarter Sessions. On 15 January it was ordered by the bench:
In March 1752 one of the gate houses, unspecified, actually fell down. Watkin suggests that it was the New Gate, but it was more probably the Willow Gate, already noted as being ready to drop in 1737, and which ceases after this date to be mentioned in contemporary documents. At the Easter Sessions the following account was passed for payment ( *66 ):
Apart from their generally dangerous, derelict state, the main problem of having medieval gateways straddling the four points of entry into a rapidly-expanding eighteenth century market town was the increasing inability of traffic to negotiate the openings. The approach roads to the town were repaired by the simple expedient of adding yet another layer of sand and metalling to the existing road surface. The gateways gradually became lower in the arch, often necessitating the partial unloading of laden carts as they made for the Bailey Head and Horsemarket. In 1767 the earl of Powys, yet again, was presented "for not repaireing the Black Gate, or taking it down, or raising it higher, being too low for carriages", and similarly, "for not raising the arch of the New Gate higher, it being too low for carriages and dangerous". If nothing was done within a month, the lord of the manor was to be fined £2 2s. in each case ( *67 ).
Of course, nothing was done. The lord of the manor was not easily moved or intimidated'. However, in 1771 fifteen prominent gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood waited upon the earl of Powys with view "to permitting the Gates of the Town (which are all at present in a ruinous condition) to be taken down and the Materials apply'd in the erecting of necessary prisons, in another place, an Alteration that would prove not only very Ornamental to the town but very convenient for all sorts of Carriages ..." ( *68 ).
Negotiations were to drag on for a number of years, although in November 1771 permission was given to demolish the Black Gate. This was in connection with a larger scheme then being carried out by the Turnpike Commissioners, that of widening and straightening the Shrewsbury road between the Black Gate and Carreg Llwyd. It was not until February 1781 that agreement was finally reached for the removal of the remaining gates and the erection, on site at two of them, of commemorative stone pillars carrying the arms of the earl of Powys and the words 'TOLL THROUGH'. Such pillars were set up at the New Gate and Beatrice Gate. A single New Gate pillar still stands in Church Street between the premises of Messrs. John Redford and R.W. Gillham. Both Beatrice Gate pillars survived, although very much weathered. When the road up Plough Bank was constructed in 1881 the pillars were moved to the Castle Bank, where they now flank the entrance steps to the landscaped walks of the former castle motte ( *69 ).
Thus vanished, almost exactly two centuries ago, the last vestiges of Oswestry's medieval defences. As already noted, most of the wall had disappeared some 120 years before the gate, sufficiently a length of time for its exact line to be lost, and long before accurate, large-scale estate and tithe maps, which might have shown its position, became commonplace. Nothing remains on the surface, and buildings - shops, houses, tanneries, breweries, ironworks, warehouses etc, - which overlie the conjectured line of the wall, give no indication, either in their alignment or curtilage boundaries, of being in any way influenced by the physical presence of a wall.
For example, Nos. 25 and 27 Church Street were the last properties in medieval Middle Street, located hard up against, and parallel to, the interior face of the town wall. In size, shape and extent they conform to the ancient burgage plots. On the other hand Nos. 29 and 31 overlie the wall and ditch. They are shallow-fronted properties and were obviously erected when New Gate and the wall no longer offered obstacles to expansion. To their rear, in English Walls, Nos. 1 to 7 and the 'Golden Tankard' inn represent the development of the back-sides of properties fronting Church Street, opened out after the wall had been demolished. The several cottages, Nos. 5, 6, and 7 lying empty and derelict, the others converted to commercial uses, straddle diagonally the known line of the wall, exposed during building operations in 1973.
At a preliminary meeting on 7 December 1977 an overall excavation strategy was evolved. Four areas were considered as having potential as far as the likelihood of throwing up traces of the wall was concerned:
- In the back-sides of houses in Willow Street abutting on to Welsh Walls. Some have steps up to a raised section of garden, which, it was believed, might cover the foundations of the town wall. With hindsight, this proved to be an erroneous deduction. Excavation in March 1980, while not exposing the wall, did reveal the remains of a medieval building and an enigmatic 'cobbled way' (see Part IV of this report).
- At the rear of the Old Post Office (Agri-Electrics) in Church Street. Here, not far from the New Gate pillar, and assuming the continuation of the line of the wall as exposed in English Walls in 1973, the town wall crossed the medieval Middle Street. There are several derelict buildings and pieces of waste land that could advantageously, be explored without much dislocation or inconvenience to owners. Some mechanical assistance would be needed to break through surface layers of rubble. The location of the wall here would be of inestimable value in helping to pin-point its course across Cae Glas Park.
- In Coney Green, where again there is much waste land available for exploratory work. But it is in this complex of former warehouses and industrial buildings that the line of the north-eastern perimeter of the wall is at its most conjectural and much time and effort could be wasted. Given the opportunity, that section of wall immediately adjacent to, and north of, the Black Gate should be recoverable without too much difficulty. Further from the gate matters become more complicated, because somewhere the wall presumably makes a sharp angled turn to run on to Beatrice Gate through an area now completely built over and unrelieved by open spaces. The importance of being able to search in Coney Green - to establish two divergent lines of the wall - cannot be gainsaid, but on viewing the terrain it is clear that optimum results will only be obtained by 'JCB archaeology' as brought to a fine art in the city of Chester!
- In Cae Glas Park, the only relatively undeveloped, open space along the supposed line of the wall. Here a 200 metre section of the wall awaits recovery. Over two centuries the park has obviously been landscaped to mask the wall's foundations and to give the flat, featureless aspect of today. The formal lawns and gardens of the long demolished Cae Glas mansion were established between 1707 and 1791, and no doubt the last vestiges of the town wall had disappeared from sight and human ken by the latter date. Stables, conservatories, kitchen gardens and shrubberies, were tucked away out of sight of the house along the northern edge of the property, possibly atop one of the several suggested lines of the wall. Further landscaping, with material and fill from elsewhere, has taken place since the grounds became a public park. The first three trenches in the present series of exploratory 'digs' were sited in the park (see Part IV of this report) but proved inconclusive. It may be that some reassessment of the conjectured line will have to be made, particularly in the light of topographical writings. The possibility of carrying out a geo-physical survey should also be investigated.
- Beneath the car-park at the junction of Willow Street and Castle Street. It is in this area that four of the reported sightings of the wall (see Part III of this report) have been made. The line of the wall immediately east of the Willow Gate runs up the centre of Castle Street and is exposed fleetingly during roadworks. Somewhere the wall turned south-east to run towards the castle. The buildings that formerly stood on the car-park site - Nos. 74-78(80) Willow Street, Nos. 51-77 Castle Street, and Nos. 2-4 Chapel Street, represent, in whole or in part, the development at the rear of at least two burgage plots after the wall was demolished. If the wall followed the line of Chapel Street to the castle, the car-park would prove a negative area; if it turned short of Chapel Street the new alignment underlies the car-park. However, the car-park has been given some semblance of semi-permanence by a tarmacadam surface, so that attention may be more profitably shifted to the neglected gardens and waste areas backing properties on the east side of Willow Street and the south side of Chapel Street.